Written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), All is Lost is one of the manliest movies of 2013. It does not earn its manliness by including action, violence or cigars – rather, All is Lost is a low-budget man vs. the elements survival thriller which warrants its “manly movie” label through its depiction of one man’s determination, grit and courage in a desperate situation. This is not exactly a plot-driven movie, but rather a cinematic experience – it allows us to experience being trapped in the middle of the ocean surrounded by nothing but water. If Life of Pi was stripped of its cloying philosophical bullshit, it would look a bit like All is Lost. The movie is also structurally similar to Alfonso Cuarón’s critically-acclaimed Gravity, but with a far more interesting leading man in Robert Redford.
There is not a great deal of story to All is Lost. It contains maybe twenty lines of dialogue in total, therefore the script reportedly ran for only thirty-two pages. In a nutshell, the movie is about Man (Redford), who has embarked on a yachting trip in the Indian Ocean. Awakening one morning to find water flooding into the cabin, Man realises that his vessel has struck a wayward shipping container, causing a sizable gash. He does his best to repair the damage, but both his laptop and his radio were damaged by the water, leaving him alone in the middle of nowhere on an unstable boat. Making matters worse, massive storms begin to hit, putting Man’s survival instincts to the test as he uses all available resources to stay alive and find rescue.
On paper, All is Lost shouldn’t work, as it’s a 105-minute motion picture featuring only one actor who says very little. Nevertheless, it’s a marvellous achievement in visual filmmaking, and for the most part remains a compelling sit. The fact that All is Lost works is a testament to the well-judged direction, cinematography and editing, as well as the Oscar-nominated sound design which generates a breathtaking sense of atmosphere. The score by Alex Ebert is hypnotic as well, but not intrusive – he provides understated musical cues to enhance the viewing experience. At times the meagre budget is obvious in some rocky digital effects, but for the most part the sense of stark realism is unbroken. It’s mesmeric cinema to watch as the Man is battered and beaten by Mother Nature, and the intense sequences are punctuated by well-judged moments of tranquillity. Chandor even takes advantage of the possibility for underwater oceanic shots, observing schools of fish circling underneath Man’s raft.
Experienced yachtsmen will likely be able to nit-pick the Man’s actions and decisions throughout, but we’re never led to believe that he’s a veteran seaman. Without a background, for all we know he could be some rich old man seeking an escape who decided to buy a yacht, and his knowledge of survival is very basic. This is why he’s so easy to latch onto; he’s resourceful but, at his core, he’s an Everyman whose actions reflect what any old Average Joe would do in this situation. It helps that Redford is such a compelling actor who looks perpetually focused. Redford might be in his 70s, but he remains an exceptional performer who’s more than capable of carrying the movie. It’s a performance of stillness and nuanced facial expressions, and Redford nails it, conveying the Man’s emotions and thoughts with practically no dialogue. Redford also sells the Man’s unravelling due to exposure and isolation, with dehydration and sunburn making the ordeal all the more gruelling.
All is Lost might look simple on the surface, but the movie’s thematic undercurrents shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s an absorbing examination of Man dealing with his mortality, and it explores the relationship that mankind has with nature. We may have technology at our disposal, but the natural world is just too dominant and unforgiving, reminding us that we are always at nature’s mercy. Chandor does make one mistake, though, by opening the picture with a flash-forward that finds Man several days into his predicament penning a letter to his estranged family. It’s an interesting opener in theory, but we feel as if the ending is a foregone conclusion. Thankfully, however, this misstep does not dilute the picture’s sense of tension throughout, and it’s definitely not enough to ruin the experience. Furthermore, All is Lost eventually culminates with an ending that manages to be satisfying without selling out. This is minimalist filmmaking at its very finest, and it definitely deserves your attention.